Over the last few weeks there has been a lot talking on social networking, its related technologies and its adoption by users worldwide. Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other similar services are being treated by some of us as true social networking platforms. Some of our colleagues have gone on to separate such services as WhatsApp, ChatOn and other similar services as just Instant messaging or Multimedia Messaging Services. But that is what Facebook, Twitter and all the others do too. Of course these add other layers to provide more integrated and seamless user experience.
With all the technological changes occurring at neck-breaking speeds, it has not been very easy to comprehend where exactly we are heading to. Smartphones are getting smarter, smaller and very powerful in computing. Samsung just recently showcased their latest flagship Galaxy phone S3 which has raised the bar in the definition of a smartphone. Today’s smartphones possess processing power comparable to laptops of three to four years back. Powerful productivity and social applications can now be packed into these gadgets making them some of the most highly sought after consumer products.
Back in the days of the dot com boom, it was so fashionable to talk Internet and email. A lot of people visited internet cafes just to open an email account. Back then, an email address was synonymous with being streetwise and upmarket. The email was perhaps the beginning of the modern social networking as we know it from Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Those privileged enough to have email address and access to wired computers would forward jokes, power-points, animated images and sometimes videos. Some firms even put strict rules on what employees could do and not do online. Yahoo back then was the king of “social networking” or emailing. A number of our friends had email addresses with a UK domain because Yahoo was offering emails on that domain only. Of course this later changed as more competitive players like Google and Microsoft joined the party.
Facebook arrived on the scene in 2006 while other big players were massively investing in email systems and other cloud services. Gmail then was the “new-kid-on-the-block”. Most people were leaving either Yahoo or Hotmail for Gmail. As much as Gmail was innovative in adding new features to online email services, it still remained an email service doing the same tasks performed by its rivals. In other words if Yahoo Mail and Hotmail were scotch-carts then Gmail was just a bigger scotch-cart being pulled by several more donkeys.
Facebook offered such a radically different social networking service that it was misconstrued for a site that stole private information to post it to the public on the web. As Facebook added more features, observed and complied with privacy regulations it gained ground as a new platform for socialising online. In Zimbabwe, Facebook became something of a phenomenon just after dollarisation of the economy when the internet became more accessible. People would meet at social gatherings and later become friends on Facebook. The word “Facebook” started appearing as an everyday “street” word. It appeared in product adverts, in newspapers and even in courts as a reference source for relevant information.
To this day, Facebook is by far the most popular internet service among the youth in Zimbabwe. It is the versatile social tool every youth can’t afford not to have. Facebook like all web services has extended to the mobile. In other words Facebook was built for the desktop during the desktop web era and is now gradually streamlining its identity as a mobile web firm as seen from its current developments.
Enter the year 2010, a new start-up called WhatsApp comes up with a tiny mobile application that runs smoothly on smartphones and would later be extended to Nokia feature phones. As an instant messaging application, WhatsApp appears harmless to the web giants. It’s pretty simple to get what it does; basically ‘free’ SMS.
But the adoption of WhatsApp particularly in developing nations has been astounding. Carrier operators who rely on SMS as a revenue channel are being made to think twice. WhatsApp on the surface is an instant messaging application but it integrates some bare-bone features such as multimedia messaging and ability to message in groups. And more importantly, in addition to WhatsApp being built from ground up for mobile, it has very basic features found in both Facebook and Google+ either as products or services.
What is very interesting at the moment is the rate at which this new messaging application is growing and in the process defining a new form of social networking, one based on instant messaging. Yes, instant messaging, whether in text, audio or video form is social networking.
Now Facebook, a service whose foundation is the desktop, must reconfigure not only its mobile strategy but even its mobile product to remain in the hearts of users. Mobile is basically a one-on-one experience as modelled by WhatsApp. Facebook does offer one-on-one instant messaging just like WhatsApp, but it is the baggage of Facebook desktop features that is ruining the mobile experience. Facebook may even struggle to get the basic user interface right for its mobile client as internal company philosophies will heavily influence how Facebook intends to play the new “instant messaging” social networking. The firm will need some serious redesign to transition to mobile with the same impact it has had on the desktop.
The social networking giant is going IPO in a few days from now and it has just revealed the financial challenges that it is facing as users migrate from desktop to mobile. This of course is in reference to lost advertising revenue. However the real discussion is not so much about the revenue, it is about the relevance to users in the mobile space. The Facebook social networking model was best suited for the desktop era, it remains to be seen how the firm will adjust to this. The mobile space is highly notorious for its dynamism, it’s been known to catapult start-ups from nowhere and place them right at the centre of the universe and the converse is sadly also true.
The story is that instant messaging is already morphing into the mobile social networking and those with the right tools are reaping the benefits. WhatsApp is on a roller coaster to become what Facebook became half a decade ago. Sadly, WhatsApp could be on the helm for just a few years assuming an exponential decay in their influence. It would seem technology is what you imagine, therefore new cutting edge technology is just a dream away!
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